Cavernous, uncomfortable silence.
You know the kind – it’s deafening. There is an elephant in the room, but no one wants to acknowledge the beast. And certainly, no one wants to talk about how the beast is affecting his or her work, home life, or feelings.
This is the kind of silence heard when a few Traffic members, Reconstructionists, OCC operators, and clerical staff were asked about how serious injury or fatal crash files impact them. Silence.
Quietly, one member responds. Then another, and another. Slowly, whispered conversations echo loudly in the silence, and in our emotions. Senior members who have been impacted by repeated exposure to serious injury/fatal crashes and new members who are pro-actively fighting to prevent long-term impact from dealing with these types of files are beginning to speak out about what it takes to remain healthy while doing this job.
Do you hear?
Serious injury/fatal crashes have “made me appreciate how precious and fragile life really is. In a blink of an eye, and because of human error, be it “accidental” or with criminal intent, people’s lives are changed forever. Being sorry doesn’t cut it. You can’t undo dead.”
Another member notes, “My training prepared me to attend the scene and deal with the scene but no amount of training can prepare you to see your first dead body and the carnage you may encounter at a scene.”
And another member expands on that thought, noting surprise at the “looky lous” because a scene on a public road is challenging to contain, as well as the difficulty the family of the deceased often have in comprehending the implications of the incident.
Being a Traffic member attending crashes has a different impact than attending domestics, bar fights, or even homicides. These files “tend to be more senseless than other injuries police deal with as generally there is no intent to injure anyone.”
“…we also see a lot of good people have a momentary lapse in judgement and make a stupid mistake. Unfortunately that mistake can often prove to be deadly.”
“I feel the likelihood of developing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is higher for Traffic members than for regular members, as we attend fatal MVI’s more often than other members attend death scenes. The odds of fatalities increase with vehicle usage on our roads, so it’s not going away.”
The conversations and emails also offer practical ideas of how to alleviate the immediate impact of serious injury/fatal crashes on members and staff, which will also reduce the development of complications like PTSD further along in a policing career.
Read “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement” by Dr. Gilmartin, which explains the physical and psychological impact of police work. The book is suitable for members and their families. “Knowledge is power.”
Our human capacity to deal with stressful times amazingly increases as we talk about thoughts and feelings. Seems too simple, but it works. Your brain and emotions are then able to categorize those thoughts and feelings appropriately for filing so they stay part of the job, not become mixed up with “normal life.”
Talk at work.
Take advantage of informal & formal debriefings at the office. “Get help, victim services, doctor, talk to someone (you trust). Don’t bottle it up.”
Different people have varying views of using black humour as part of the office talk. Black humour, explains one member, is a “valuable coping method – know your audience – (it’s) not prejudicial or racial but lightening the mood.” A younger member notes, “Black humour is present and I occasionally take part, but it seems forced and expected (as in: it wouldn’t exist unless it was already expected). I feel it does little to help or harm in my opinion, it can be quite funny though, in a morbid sort of way.” While an older member says, “For me (black humour) is a vital component to my mental health. I am very careful of the audience and alive to a time and place for such.” And another member comments, “After seeing so many collisions it’s almost like we try to desensitize the situations so we can get the job done. I feel that somewhere down the road people call (that desensitization) PTSD.”
Talk to professionals
“Though I didn’t believe I had been affected seriously I felt it would be a good idea as I had attended several serious collisions in my short career, and it did help to talk to someone who you knew could handle the details. I feel I have access to any help I would need should I have issues.”
Talk to family and friends.
“Be in relationships, do not isolate.”
“Talk, not about details but about the impact, the feelings, the things I noticed or that caused me frustration”
Have a life outside work
“Walking the dogs provides so much for me – exercise, companionship, nature, and it all helps me cope.”
“I try to keep work separate from my personal life. Police tend to talk about work when off duty. I play hockey with other officers… but rarely do I attend social events specific to police.”
“At home the best thing for me is to stay active, I hate the gym but I’ll play just about any sport and I feel playing a team sport clears my mind from any negative thoughts.”
“I worry that if I don’t keep my personal life and my work life separate I will get caught up with (the impact of work) at home.”
Believe in the positives
There are also positives to being the one who responds to serious injury/fatal crashes.
“I am a very spiritual person and I rely on my faith in times such as this. I believe that, although I do not know “why” right now, one day all my questions will be answered, and then everything will make sense. I know I am not in charge and I don’t make the decisions.”
“…this is a job that someone has to do and that someone is me. Those involved tell me that they are glad I do what I do. My friends and acquaintances often say the same… I take some pride in that.”
“Follow-up makes a difference – assisting the family after the fact has made me a better member and a better person.”
Working in Traffic is “not just writing tickets. People see us in a negative light when we are writing tickets, but we have the opportunity to take seriously negative situations and be seen by the public in a more positive light, showing compassion and understanding.”
Serious injury/fatal crashes have definitive impacts on the members and support staff who work on them. As we talk about those impacts, and support one another in making healthy choices in our work and home lives, those impacts can change from negatives to positives.
Help break the silence.
– By Marnie Pohlmann